Shopping in Watford

Boyhood memories

By John Perry

The High street near Marks and Spencer
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
The High Street in 1964
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies

I can remember being with my Mother in a shop, the bill came to four shillings eleven pence three farthings, two half crowns were proffered and the change– one farthing was waited for as if it had been a Kings ransom. It seems strange now to think that the farthing was one 960th of a pound! The best bit was watching the assistant put the bill and the money into a wooden cup which with a twisting motion fitted into a metal screw then on pulling a handle which stretched elastic bands the cup was projected to the cashier along a wire at a fast speed. After some time the projectile came back along the wire to the shop assistant who unscrewed the cup to present the change and a receipt. Butchers shops mostly had a cashier within a tiny booth in the shop; floors were covered in sawdust, in wet weather the sawdust stuck to the customer’s feet and was tracked out of the shop and deposited along the pavement. Cawdells in the Watford High Street was very high tech with a vacuum system whereby the money was put into a tube and screwed shut, the tube was pushed into a pipe where it disappeared with a whoosh to somewhere mysterious within the building. After what seemed to be a half hour the tube dropped with a hefty thump into the waiting basket, then when the assistant was free the receipt and change was forthcoming.  

The haberdashers

A trip to the haberdashers held another mystery for me, when after wrapping our purchase the assistant would very dexterously tie string around the parcel and snap the string with a flick of his fingers, the assistants did not look to be weightlifters but how did they snap that string?  

The grocers  

Another source of mystery to small children was to watch an assistant make a paper cone to hold a purchase; sugar was weighed into blue bags that were closed with proper little ears that stayed flat seemingly without support. Everywhere in the grocers shop were sacks open to show the contents, split peas, currants and dried fruit was on display, every type of shop had its own individual smell. I particularly liked to watch butter being patted with the two wooden bats some of which left exotic impressions on the half pound of butter of whatever weight was required, a lot of shops did this back then from large blocks of butter about a foot and a half square. Bacon was freshly cut as needed, the assistant asking which cut Madam preferred, it was possible to have your bacon so thin you could almost see through it or up to doorstep thickness, I never could see where green bacon was actually green, I remember thinking that if it actually was green then it must be ‘off’ It was also fascinating to watch the cheese being cut with a wire into manageable wedges from the half-hundredweight or so whole cheeses which came from New Zealand at two to a crate, these were covered in muslin, if lucky this could be begged for and after washing out made good cloths around the house.    

Home made barrows

If the begging was successful sometimes it was also possible to get a couple of the cheese crates which were picked up by means of the home made ‘barrow’ every self respecting boy had one, these crates were then chopped up into firewood. The crates were stencilled with the logo for New Zealand the fern, which always seemed to be quite exotic coming as it did from the other side of the world. The’ Barrow’ was made almost exclusively from pram wheels or perambulators to give the proper name, some boys made the wheels into a trolley on which they sat and some had front wheel steering and would go like the clappers down hill. Most preferred the barrow because very occasionally there would come the opportunity to earn money by fetching something for a lady which was too heavy otherwise to carry, like a sack of potatoes from the greengrocer or a grocery order.  

The cobbler  

The cobblers shop had a really distinctive smell and most had a large stitching machine and a shoe stretcher, shoes could be left on a stretcher and picked up later, and if a bunion was causing trouble then the shoe could be stretched in the area of the swelling to alleviate pain.  

Broken biscuits

 Marks and Spencer

Clements a large apartment store in Watford had a floorwalker, he wore a morning suit complete with buttonhole, invariably he would appear in the main foyer just inside the main entrance from the high street, I always was completely mystified as to what he actually did, these days I would expect him to ask the assistants ‘are you free’? Some of the grocers would stock broken biscuits, these were highly prized, sometimes a small queue would form to purchase them, and I was always disappointed if there were no creams in among the pieces. Marks and Spencer had counters with glass sides and their cakes were baked by Howell and Hall of Middlesex whose Lorries were silver if my memory serves me correctly, the floors were wooden and creaked as customers walked around,  I can remember the men laying the first terrazzo flooring in Marks and Spencers during one of their many updates, goodbye forever creaky floors.    

Tea and coffee  

Across the High street from ‘Marks and Sparks’ was a firm called Importers, coffee and tea was their speciality, they would flood the pavement with the smell of roasting coffee, there would be quite a lot of smoke associated with this at times. Looking through the window it was possible to see the roasting drum revolving with the gas jets making flames inside, not being a coffee drinker then, I could not understand anyone who was, after all wasn’t it burnt?  

Hardware shops  

Hardware shops always had a fascination for me with their thousands of ‘bits and bobs’ from tap washers to paraffin with allsorts hanging from hooks in the ceiling, the rat and mouse traps were of the old wooden type with a spring to break the creatures back if they got caught. There were literally dozens of small drawers which held tap washers and nuts and bolts, how they knew where anything was always seemed a puzzle to me, they did have writing on so maybe that was how they knew the whereabouts of certain small things. Chicken wire for Rabbit hutches was one reason we had to go into one of these treasure houses, or paraffin for a neighbours stove; I always thought it strange that chicken wire was purchased for rabbits!  

The Post Office  

The General post office in Market street had the telegram boys and engineer’s section behind with an entrance next to the Compasses pub on the corner of Market Street, and via stones alley in Market Street, the engineers had little green vans with G.P.O. on the side, it is still the G.P.O. to me even now. I never achieved my ambition to become a telegraph boy and get my own motorbike; mind you a lot of people were afraid of telegrams and would never associate them with good news only bad, a throwback to the war I suppose.  

Norvic footfitters  

We would come home from school via Queens road just to visit the shop next to the Queens Arms pub and look in the window of Norvic footfitters, a shoe shop with a concave shop window with mirrors on either side and if you looked over the ledge it was possible to see yourself hundreds of times seemingly to go on forever into the far distance to the left and right.  

Bargain hunting  

I remember while at Victoria school one of the more cheeky lads went into a bakers shop in Market Street and enquired ‘have you any stale cakes’? When informed that they had he said ‘serves you right for baking too many yesterday’ and ran for his life! A lot of families eked out their money by buying stale cakes from the baker or ‘sleepy’ pears from the greengrocer, or trying for cheap stuff as the market was about to close, at Christmas time a lot of people went to the market quite late so as to get bargains because the stallholders did not want stock left over.  

Off sales  

Most public houses had an off sales door, if older children were sent for a bottle of beer then the bottle stopper was sealed with sealing wax, fancy not trusting us, most pubs were completely barred to children, if they were present while their parents were drinking, then they stood outside with a lemonade and an arrowroot biscuit about six inches in diameter, a lot of people would say poor little devils if it was cold. Beer and lemonade bottles were always prized because they represented money when returned to the pub or shop, they would be taken back at once to become money before they were dropped and smashed. Fowlers jam factory in Sydney Road would buy jam jars for cleaning and refilling, then there were both one and two pound jars, at different prices of course.  

Dunks the barber  

Barbers shops were one place I hated going, the barber seemed to always want me to screw my neck into grotesque shapes by pushing my head roughly around, if there were more than four people in the shop it seemed to me that I sat there for a couple of years, my barbers then was Dunks in Carey place. The cut-throat razor filled me with terror but was welcome only because I could get out of the chair finally when the razor had seemingly scraped all the skin off my neck, I’m sure the barber laughed at me as he stropped the razor to a previously unattained sharpness especially for my benefit, we had all heard of Sweeney Todd the demon barber.  

Steabbens  

There was a mans haberdashers and tailors next to the White Hart pub in the High street called Steabbens, one of the assistants in striped trousers would stand outside with his tape measure around his neck. Later when a bit older and I thought more sophisticated, I used to buy things there from the seemingly endless rows of draws, containing all sorts of gentleman’s socks gloves scarves cravats etc; the shops were all interconnected in three High street numbers, whatever happened to cravats?  

The Co-Operative  

There were Co-operative society shops everywhere and most people used them, they had greengrocers, grocers, butchers, dairies, furniture departments, and halls in Whippendell road and St Albans road where a lot of people held their wedding receptions. Then when the call came they even had a funeral parlour now that is what I call a complete service, some people can remember their CO-OP numbers to this day, my wife can remember her mothers number from fifty plus years ago. When I visited my Grandmother who lived in Southsea near Portsmouth the co-op was called Pimco, this was on the milk bottles and apparently stood for Portsea Island Mutual Cooperative Society, funny how things stick in the memory.  

A dry grocer  

I can remember once going into Horwoods the grocers in Loates Lane for margarine, only to be told we are dry grocers! They also had a stall in Watford market and took their stuff on large barrows with pneumatic tyres, they had two of these and the goods for the market were kept on these barrows at the back of the shop that was opposite the back entrance of Kinghams the Grocers. On the way home from school we would go by way of the Watford market, if lucky we would get a box for firewood, there was no need then to recycle wood it all went onto someone’s fire.  

Returning the empties  

In the sixties my in-laws had the shop Woodrows on the corner of Euston Avenue and in common with all newsagents they sold lemonade in glass bottles, these could be returned for cash when empty. When the empties were returned they were put into crates by the back gate of the shop, and suspicions began to dawn when the same boys were bringing back empties without buying any full bottles. After keeping tabs it became clear that the boys were somehow getting empties out of the crates and returning them to the shop for more money, the gate could only be opened with great effort and to this day no one knew how the small boys managed this.  

My Mum says it must be fresh  

I often used to wonder what some of the shopkeepers thought of children who came into their shop and said things like my Mum says it must be fresh, when I got a bit older I can remember being acutely embarrassed by this. On reflection I suppose there were so many small shops then that the shopkeepers were only too glad to get trade whatever the source, and so could not complain too much. I wonder just how many older people can remember going to the bakers with the instructions “don’t go to so and so’s he once sold us a stale loaf. Fish and chip shops were held in great esteem if they gave ample portions or cooked their batter in a certain way, this was most mysterious to us children, who could never fathom how Mother knew just where we had been if instructions were not followed to the letter. Woe betide a butchers that bunged in a bit of fat instead of meat in the purchase, but sometimes fat was required for a certain purpose, then we would soon get the idea that we could never win. I was once sent on an errand for a neighbour to Gibson’s the butchers in the High street for chitlings, when I returned with the parcel the neighbour looked inside and I can remember being horrified that people could eat them. They are apparently pig’s intestines that have been washed out, pigs head was also a thing that put me right off going shopping for other people, I could not get home too quickly to off load the parcel, but the penny or halfpenny was always welcome.  

Dukes the stationers  

In later years I attended night school and went to Queen’s road to purchase notebooks and compasses, ruler and rubber from the Misses Duke, two ladies always impeccably turned out, the artists wooden cases in the window of their shop always looked to hold something wonderful, I can remember as a youngster the awe that certain trades people were held and this included Dukes the stationers.  

Melias the grocer  

In the High Street opposite where Carey place joined from Derby road, there was the grocers Melias, they had a large container on legs that held dried peas that had been soaked in water to revive them. It was possible to buy them dried if preferred and then a large salt tablet was include in the price to put in the water when soaking the peas, with no refrigerators then we all had to buy peas this way or tinned, when winter came.  

Mending shoes  

I can remember being sent to Swans the leather shop in lower High Street for soles for shoes, usually I had to take a shoe and get the right size for my father to repair them, on his last which looked like a three legged stool, they sold black or brown wax with which to finish the shoes, this was called heel-ball and to this day I do not know why. The heelball was applied with an iron which was put onto the gas stove to get hot and this enabled wax to be melted onto the edges of the heels and soles to make them black and shiny, or if preferred brown and shiny. It was also possible to obtain waxed thread to re-stitch shoes and this came on a card sometimes complete with needle, I nearly always had to obtain Blakeys or Segs these were steel cleats with their own nails which were put into heels in an attempt to eliminate wear. A hopeless task when we children would try to strike sparks off them on the granite kerbstones, which wore then out quite quickly, or sometimes tore them out of the shoes completely. Then we would hope that there would not be a shoe inspection, we children were murder on our shoes, after all we walked nearly everywhere, rides were for the affluent. The soles we bought were of the Phillips stick on variety, there was included a tube of rubber solution and a tin rasp for roughing the leather soles of the shoes to be mended, the whole thing was not too different to mending a puncture on a bike except that it was not advisable to dip the shoes in a bucket of water as when trying to find a leak in an inner tube!    

Then and now…  

If this article seems to be predominantly concerned with food its’ because then we were all in the same boat, how some of the larger families managed I do not know, although most people were prepared to help each other then. A lot of houses had boot scrapers built into the wall, these were made of cast iron as were the fire-grates of that time, which are very fashionable now– what goes around comes around as ever, the prices would make some of the old timers faint I expect when the price charged for a really good fireplace would be worth more than their house originally cost. Its’ truly amazing how much fashions change in house interiors now, all those thirties fireplaces are in vogue now whereas they were being taken out and smashed up not too long ago. Most houses being decorated had their picture rails ripped out, now the do-it yourself supermarkets are selling picture rail kits to replace them, and those low dado rails are back in.      

This article started out quite small but just like Topsy it just growed! This is what happens as the memory cells are stimulated, but why does it always seem to have been better then?          

This page was added on 07/12/2010.

Comments about this page

  • I am trying to remember the name of a toy shop on the parade of shops near the high street station in 1974/1975

    By Janet Webster (26/07/2018)
  • Hi John,

    My name is Lisa and I believe you may be Yvonne’s brother, my mum, Jenny’s, mother. 

    I’ve enjoyed reading what you’ve written on this website and found them by looking for any information on the family as I’m always searching for photos or stories I’ve never heard before.

    I hope you’re well and I’m sorry we’ve never had the chance to meet before as I would have loved to hear about your past and learn about you and the family.

    Get in touch if you can,

    Lisa x

    By Lisa Smith (03/02/2015)

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *